On one of her first days at Capital Tonight, the nightly political program she began hosting this year on New York cable channel Your News Now, Liz Benjamin let her presence be known—with volume. It was about 8 a.m. and Benjamin was in the Capital Tonight office, a collection of four desks in an open nook off of YNN’s main newsroom. “I was screaming at somebody on the phone when I got an e-mail from my boss who works a couple of doors down, saying, ‘We can hear you through the whole newsroom,’” recalls Benjamin. How did the new employee respond? “Get me a door.”
“Loud” is just one of Benjamin’s settings. The Albany-based blogger, columnist, and lately TV anchor can be flirty—she jokingly asks one source what he’s wearing the day I visit her at Capital Tonight. And she can be tough—she asks another source why he is talking on background because “you haven’t really said jack shit, actually.” She can also be fearless—Spiderman fearless. Working late at the statehouse one night in her early years, Benjamin locked herself out of her closet-sized office with a still-lit cigarette burning in an ashtray on her desk (the triathlete no longer smokes). Worried she would burn the whole building down, she climbed out of the window of another office and walked to her own window along a narrow ledge on the outside of the building’s third floor. “She got into her office and probably smoked the rest of the cigarette,” says then-coworker Erin Duggan.
Long famed as the frizzy-haired muckraker of New York’s statehouse, Benjamin has for fifteen years built a reputation for strong investigative reporting, tough questioning, and breaking news in print and online at The Albany Times Union and the New York Daily News. “She seems to start her day before I wake up and she seems to end it long after I’m asleep,” says WNYC reporter Azi Paybarah. “And the fact that she has a good head on her shoulders makes it almost impossible to keep up with her pace.” Times Union editor Rex Smith is more succinct: “She is as relentless as the sea.”
This year, Benjamin has brought her intensity to television, taking over from Brian Taff as anchor of Capital Tonight. The transition hasn’t been seamless—she still has trouble with the teleprompter, and some say her direct stylings could be further smoothed for TV. In September, for instance, she went all Tony Soprano on gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, asking if he planned to “take out” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, though she smiled as the question slipped out.
Nevertheless, the approach has worked for Benjamin, whose profile in Albany is beginning to rival that of the current press corps dean, Fredric U. Dicker of The New York Post. Dicker and Benjamin were the only state broadcast reporters to score sit-down interviews with then-gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo.* “You walk around the capital at 10 a.m. on a weekday you hear people listening to Fred Dicker’s radio show; all day long, they’re reading Liz’s blog,” says Capital Tonight producer Elizabeth Alesse. “It’s the Bible of state politics.”
So it is that the bible challenges the voice of God. And while most in Albany refrain from commenting on any rivalry out of respect for both players, all agree that Benjamin’s star, already risen, has some way to climb yet—a path that leads directly to Dicker. “Liz is definitely on a clear, incredibly forward, and high ranging trajectory,” says Maggie Haberman, New York bureau chief for Politico. “Force of nature” is the description offered by another competitor; another yet calls her a “superhuman.” What does Liz Benjamin herself make of all that talk? “I’m still my own worst critic,” she tells me. “I have a long, long way to go.”
Liftoff came for thirty-eight-year-old Liz Benjamin with the Times Union’s Capitol Confidential blog. It was late 2005, and Benjamin, state bureau chief at the time and a longtime reporter for the paper, had taken a liking to Ben Smith’s Politicker blog at The New York Observer. Politicker had launched that year, pioneering the format of the modern local political blog—devotedly insider-ish, constantly updated, overseen by a hard-working obsessive, and very well-sourced. Vanity Fair’s Michael Wolff described Smith’s blog in a profile of his current employer, Politico, last year: “It has a kind of focus and relentlessness and unavoidability that, through sheer immediacy and constancy, forces everybody to acknowledge it.”